The start of each new year is always an excuse for predicting the way things might turn out. In many cultures the figure 13 is associated with misfortune. However, 2013 is not necessarily doomed to confirm that prejudice.
Since a journalist is not a fortune-teller, and certainly not an historian either, he should steer away from both predictions and narratives of the past. My purpose in this column, therefore, is not to predict the future through any imagined crystal ball. Nevertheless, looking at what is actually happening here and now it may be possible to discover certain trends that might help shape the new year’s events.
The first trend worth noting is the gradual breakdown in world order. Though incomplete, that order had taken shape in the wake of the Cold War with a series of regional balances of power, often implicitly guaranteed by the weight of the American “superpower”. We could see the system working in Latin America, parts of Africa, the Middle East, the Gulf region and the Pacific.
With the US embarking on a strategic retreat under President Barack Obama that system is likely to come under growing pressure, in some cases even breaking down. Obama regards American leadership as a form of arrogance to which he is opposed. His policy of “leading from behind” is the first step towards “leaving by the back door.” Over the next four years, dramatic cuts in the US defense budget could make it hard for any future president to project power effectively.
The American retreat is likely to create vacuums that opportunistic powers will try to fill. In Latin America, three emerging power blocs are setting to compete over influence in the region. The moderate left bloc, led by Brazil, is opting for a cautious distancing of the sub-continent from the giant in the north. A more radical left bloc, led by Venezuela and backed by Russia and Iran, is seeking an effective exclusion of the United States. As Hugo Chavez has said had the US not been located in the American continent it would not have had any place in the new version of the Organisation of American States. A third bloc, including Mexico and Colombia, is still banking on a future return of the US as a major player on the international scene.
In the Middle East, most players are already writing the US out. Israel is pushing ahead with its settlement programme in the West Bank, disregarding Washington’s advice not to do so.
The Palestinian Authority has already ignored American injunctions and secured observer-state status in the United Nations. Hamas is putting final touches to its silent coup against Fatah, with the clear aim of propelling Khalid Mishal into the chair occupied by Mahmoud Abbas.
The two-state idea, launched by President George W Bush in 2003, may witness its burial under Obama in 2013.
Having noted Washington’s confusion during the Arab Spring, the countries concerned are shaping their different trajectories with little regard for American views. Nowhere is the American confusion more dramatically manifested as in Syria. Over six months ago, President Obama made a solemn call for toppling Bashar al-Assad. He is still trying to figure out what he might do about that.
In the Gulf region, Obama is preparing the ground for surrendering to the mullahs of Tehran. Ironically, this could come at a time that the Khomeinist regime, at its most vulnerable phase, desperately needs a foreign policy success to save itself. A deal between Obama and the mullahs would show that a US unwilling to defend its own interest could not be expected to risk defending the interests of erstwhile allies. The Gulf countries would have to re-think defense doctrines that, since the 1940s, have been based on the assumption of American support. A Khomeinist regime armed with nuclear weapons could trigger an atomic arms race in the region.
The vacuum being created by Obama is also felt in the Far East where China and Japan are beating the drums of war. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan might well launch a major military build-up that could include a constitutional amendment to allow the development of nuclear weapons as well. Abe could use such a build up to kick-start an economic upturn, ending more than two decades of flat-lining in Japan.
China for its part is speeding up the building of a blue-water navy to bully neighbours such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan with which it is in irredentist dispute over resource-rich islands and atolls.
Meanwhile, Russia is busy exploiting the Obama retreat to project power in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe while consolidating its alliance with the mullahs in Tehran.
For its part, Iran will speed up its attempts to control the political agenda in Iraq while trying to prevent the fall of the al-Assad regime in Syria and the destruction of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In Afghanistan, Iran is allying itself with Russia, India, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to oppose Pakistan’s plans to bring the Taliban back as a major player in Kabul.
American absence will also be felt in Europe where, threatened by economic meltdown, the European Union is incapable of halting the recessionary trend of the global economy.
In Africa, large chunks of the Sahel appear to be heading for a Somalia-like status while war is brewing among countries surrounding the Great Lakes. Only lack of resources ensures the African continent against the possibility of major wars in 2013.
An American global retreat is not necessarily good news for those interested in international peace and stability.
A couple of weeks ago, a German friend, with a long history of European-style anti-Americanism, something very fashionable in leftist circles throughout the Cold War, had this to say: Having shouted “Yankee! Go Home” all my life, now I feel I have to shout: “ Yankee! Come Back!”
Well, he may have a point.